BERLIN — The right-wing Alternative for Germany party surged in elections Sunday in two states in the nation’s former communist east, but it failed to take first place as had been predicted in pre-vote polling.
In Saxony, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led the state with 32.1% of the vote, ahead of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) with 27.5%, according to the state government. The AfD nearly tripled its share of the vote since elections five years ago while the CDU lost almost 7% of its support.
In Brandenburg, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) continued to hold the state with 26.2% of the vote, even as the party lost more than 5% of its support compared with five years ago. The AfD won 23.5% of the vote, nearly doubling its share over the previous election.
Turnout was significantly higher than in the 2014 elections. In Saxony, 65% of eligible voters went to the polls, compared with about 49% five years ago, according to estimates from pollster Infratest dimap. In Brandenburg, turnout slightly topped 60%, compared with 47.9% in the previous elections.
As results trickled in, the leaders of Germany’s establishment parties conceded they had much work to do in light of the results.
“A few weeks ago, the far right was ahead [of us]. But today, there was clear pushback against the AfD; most don’t want the AfD to be the strongest party,” said SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil. “Nevertheless, these election results are still far too high” in support for them.
Meanwhile, the AfD, expressing satisfaction with the results, said it showed that voters were “punishing” the establishment parties and vowed to press on.
“Yes, we have not become the strongest force — there is still some missing pieces. And now, the real work begins,” AfD co-Chairman Alexander Gauland told German broadcaster ARD. “We won’t move the discourse to the right but toward reason.”
Even before Sunday, the long dominance of Germany’s centrist parties was showing serious cracks.
The SPD for years has been a reluctant coalition partner at best, dragging its heels after the 2017 elections in agreeing to join Ms. Merkel in another “grand coalition,” as activists complained that the alliance was steadily dragging down the party’s popularity.
As the CDU moves more toward the left, it leaves a vacuum that the AfD has rushed to fill.
The AfD, which was formed in 2013 as a group that opposed Germany’s policies toward the euro crisis, surged in support, especially in the formerly communist east, because of its staunch anti-immigrant stands. By 2017, it had won seats in 14 out of 16 state parliaments and in the federal government for the first time. Even so, its power has been limited. It usually wins 10% to 15% of the vote, and none of the establishment parties will work with the AfD.
Coming just before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, the state elections — as well as one in the eastern state of Thuringia in October — underscore the divide that lingers between the east and the west, and in some cases nostalgia for communist East Germany.
Still dealing with the collapse of major industries and markets after the Berlin Wall fell, many easterners express frustration and anger at Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats for opening the door to 1 million refugees in 2015, mostly from Arab and African countries.
The AfD has run on a platform of more investment in education and infrastructure, more deportations of foreigners, a ban on mosques with minarets and less “appeasement of foreigners.”
Some of the resentment, analysts say, comes from a feeling of missing out. In spite of billions of dollars in transfer payments from the federal government since reunification in 1991, investment in infrastructure and the emergence of business hubs in cities such as Dresden, many in the east feel they didn’t benefit as Germany powered ahead in the 2000s to become the continent’s economic engine. Wages remain lower than in the east, and certain professionals such as doctors remain lacking.
“There is a sense that people in the east haven’t done so well and feel left behind,” said Matthias Lang, a lawyer with Bird & Bird in Dusseldorf. “Whether that’s true or not is a different question. But it’s clear that the AfD’s support is higher in areas where people feel this way.”
He said any surges of support for the AfD will just make it harder for Germany’s eastern regions to attract more investment and raise its living standards.
“If you are an investor and you are watching things not going well in a region, then you may be less likely to invest there, and this in turn will not make the situation better in that area, which will lead to continued unhappiness,” said Mr. Lang. “But where you have a real problem is where there is unwillingness by the population to have foreigners. Then as a foreign company, you would certainly look elsewhere to invest.”
Ingo Kramer, president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA), expressed concern over AfD gains in the two state elections.
“The relative strength of the AfD in Saxony and Brandenburg causes us employers increasing concern, as the verbal statements of top AfD officials are likely to damage the positive reputation of international business in these states,” he told German media. “Both state leaders must understand their clear personal electoral success as a mission to form a government that strengthens the economy and thus improves people’s living standards more than it has done so far.”
The elections in Saxony and Brandenburg have been watched with growing concern in much of the rest of the country. Because of Germany’s Nazi past, many don’t want to see a party many associate with racism, and downplaying that legacy makes surges in the east.
In Dresden last month, thousands hit the streets in protest.
“I am panicked that the AfD could win,” said Maria, a teacher in Berlin, 45, who votes for The Left Party. “And I can’t believe it that this could actually become a reality.”
Regardless, the elections underscore a division in Germany that exists and continues to grow across Europe and elsewhere.
“Thirty years after the fall of the Wall, our homeland is more divided than ever,” Die Welt Editor-in-Chief Ulf Poschardt said in an editorial. “There is no desire to build a road between the two sides. And there is a lack of ideas that could bring together the different factions in the country.”